In this clip from The Supreme Price, a new documentary by filmmaker Joanna Lipper, civil rights activist Hafsat Abiola laments the structural obstacles that have plagued Nigeria for more than five decades. As the daughter of pro-democracy leaders M.K.O. and Kudirat Abiola, who were killed in the 1990s amid the twilight years of Nigeria's military junta, Hafsat founded a non-profit in her mother's name devoted to the social, political, and economic advancement of women. I spoke with Lipper last week about her film, Hafsat's work, and the future of women in Nigeria. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Chris Heller: I'm curious to learn how you met Hafsat Abiola. When did you first hear about her story?
Joanna Lipper: I've known Hafsat since the 1990s. We overlapped at Harvard and met a few years after we both had graduated, when she was in the early stages of first building Kudirat Initiative For Democracy while in exile in the United States. I went to an event where she told her family story; both her parents were already dead at that point. She stood up with incredible poise and power and told this story that was so moving. That's how we met. Her story stayed with me for many, many years.
I was very impressed when she went back to Nigeria and built KIND into a major organization that nurtured women who were developing into leaders. I kept in touch with her when she came through the U.S., then in 2010, I was invited to Lagos to show a photography series I had done on seaweed farmers in Zanzibar. So while I was there, I visited KIND's headquarters, I met executive director Amy Oyekunle, I got to see their operation. I realized they had the infrastructure there that would allow me to make a film. That's how the idea first emerged.
Heller: This is an ambitious documentary. You've tasked yourself with condensing decades of Nigerian history into fewer than 90 minutes. How did you decide what to include? Were you concerned that audiences wouldn't be familiar with the story?
Lipper: When I set out to make the film, I had a very broad audience in mind. I wanted, first and foremost, to make a film that honored Nigerian history for Nigerians who knew the characters and knew their political history well. I also had in mind younger generations of Nigerians, who maybe had heard this story from their parents or grandparents, but did not know all the details. And then, a huge target was an international audience that did not know a lot about Nigeria. They needed some context to understand how a leader like M.K.O. Abiola emerged, what made him unique, what his objectives were, and what the opposition to his leadership was. How did a female leader like Kudirat Abiola emerge after her husband was incarcerated? How did she transition from being a wife and a mother to a leader? Each of these is a different story: the emergence of M.K.O. Abiola and his rise as a businessman and his transition into politics; Kudirat's role marrying this man, having seven children, and then becoming a leader of Nigeria's opposition movement. To understand either of these figures, I had to contextualize them against the backdrop of Nigerian history.
To really convey the impact of military rule, I had to go way back to 1960 to introduce people like [writer and activist] Wole Soyinka, who were both witnesses and international authorities on Nigerian politics and history. Figures like [U.S. Ambassador] Walter Carrington and [U.S. Ambassador] John Campbell—who both know a lot about foreign policy, politics, culture, and history—explain how the military established a pattern of oppressing the masses. What made the story really exciting to me was the challenge of weaving the emotional, intimate, personal story of the Abiola family into the fabric of Nigerian politics and history and culture. Basically, the story of the individuals wouldn't have been comprehensible without the larger story of Nigeria. It was a huge, time consuming process.
Heller: It's interesting to hear you describe the movie that way—as the story of the Abiolas, framed within the history of Nigeria's pro-democracy movement. Were you surprised to learn about the tension that exists within the family? I'm thinking of M.K.O.'s polygamy, Kudirat's feelings of inadequacy because she didn't go to college, and especially the religious conservatism of Olalekan, Hafsat's older brother.
Lipper: That's something I discovered as I was doing the interviews. I like to let the interview subjects guide and lead me. I approach topics they introduce, and then help them delve deeper into their own minds and psyches and memories. I think that process unearthed a lot.
What I wasn't surprised by, but what I was really moved by, was the level of honesty that Hafsat, Olalekean, and [Hafsat's younger sister] Khafila offered about the dynamics of the family. A lot of times, people want to preserve an illusion of "Oh, it was such a romantic story. It was a perfect marriage." Everyone knows that life isn't like that. Marriages are complex. They were willing to analyze, from their own perspectives, the complexities of their parents' marriage—and obviously, the influence of the patriarchal and polygamist culture they grew up in. To look at those structural elements and to look at the emotional consequences of those elements was really moving. It was something that I haven't heard discussed with that level of depth and honesty.
Heller: Their honesty was very striking to me. In some ways it reminded me of Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell, although that's a very different documentary. When you sat down for these interviews, how did you encourage the family to talk about themselves? Were they forthright from the beginning, or was this something you teased out through each conversation?
Lipper: I have a Masters in psychoanalytic developmental psychology and I'm really interested in the psychoanalytic process. We all have defense mechanisms; we all have modes of self-presentation that we use as adults. Interviewing a subject in a safe space allows their authentic, internal self to be visible and realized. To be able to get to that next level, that has always interested me as a filmmaker. One of the things I love about directing documentaries is the chance to get to those deeper layers and to reach that authentic self that is unguarded and is present in all of us.
In all of those interviews, it was a question of focus, a question of concentration, a question of trust, and a question of setting. These characters were interviewed in home environments, places that were very calm, very quiet, very peaceful. The film was made over several years, so I was able to capture people evolving over time: the way they tell a story, the way they think about things. You can help create that layer of memories. That is where you get that rich intimacy and detail.
Heller: How many years did you spend making this film?
Lipper: I started filming in November of 2010. The film premiered in the spring of 2014. So, it took time. A lot of that was going back to Nigeria and editing and raising money—with documentaries, you raise money over time—so it was a combination of those things. It ended up being positive for the film because it allowed me to learn about more Nigerian history. In between shooting, I would do archival research, I would interview people like John Campbell. There were things I could do between the shoots in Nigeria that added different layers to the movie.
Heller: How much did you know about Nigeria before you started?
Lipper: I would say I didn't know much. I knew a lot about the family story, but I had to go through a process of contextualizing it and learning about Nigerian politics and history and culture—the same process that the audience goes through when they see the film. Putting different pieces together, you know? Nigeria is such a complex place. To read any media story that's out there, it really helps to have a background. It's so complex that it's not something that can be done quickly. It took me a long time to do that—and I'm still learning every day.
Heller: I'd like to ask you about the end of the film. At least to me, it seems to imply that Hafsat could run for high office one day—or, at least, it suggests that she would have support if she chose to do so. Do you think she could be Nigeria's president?
Lipper: I think that Hafsat has great potential and would bring tremendous expertise and intelligence to a position of leadership in Nigeria. What makes her distinguished as a leader is her desire to change the structure of the system—not just to fight corruption at all costs, but also her support of other women and women's leadership. It's something that she's not only pursuing as an individual, but as a national objective. I think the combination of those two things position her really well for leadership.
In the film, you see both sides. You see the resistance and the reality of the struggle, but you also see the glimmer of hope. I think the film is realistic about the structural and cultural obstacles that stand in the way of someone like Hafsat becoming a major leader. It's realistic about the resistance, but it's also championing the potential that is there.
Heller: In your opinion, what needs to change in Nigeria before a woman could take on a leadership role?
Lipper: Well, Nigeria has some mandatory minimum quotas in state government. The problem is that the positions that are used to fill those quotas are frequently appointed, rather than elected, so they have less power and less influence. They have fewer resources at their disposal. I think there needs to be a focus on the system by which people get elected. How can women access the resources and party support necessary to be elected?
You also see the mindset of someone like Hafsat's own brother Olalekan, who says he would support a woman being a vice president or a deputy governor, but has a harder time imagining a woman in the top position. That's an ideology and a mindset that needs to change over time. I think the film shows how, in the most progressive parts of Nigeria, they're moving towards it. Olalekan has a mosque on the family compound and Kudirat Initiative For Democracy is less than a minute's walk away. They're coexisting every day, nonviolently and peacefully. That was something interesting to look at: the Abiola family compound as a microcosm of both tradition and progressive, feminist ideology in Nigeria.
Heller: I'd like to ask you about a scene that stuck with me, when Khafila talks about the different ways her siblings have coped with the loss of their parents. After spending so much time with Hafsat, why do you think she's chosen to follow in her mother's footsteps? What do you think drives her to do what she's done?
Lipper: I think her mother was an incredibly empowering figure. She didn't go to college, yet she made it a huge priority that her daughters would be educated in the United States. The sacrifices she made and her determination to give her daughters the opportunities she never had impacted Hafsat on a very deep level. When she moved back to Nigeria, she moved into her mother's bedroom on the family compound. She is inhabiting the physical space and, in some ways, the emotional space of her mother. That's her way of carrying on Kudirat's ideals and dreams. It's her way of keeping her mother alive within her.
When we grow from children into adults, we choose which parts of our parents we internalize. Particularly, it's acute when a parent dies because the mourning process includes a lot of internalization and incorporation. For Hafsat, that was the political struggle, it was returning to Nigeria, it was empowering women. When you see the way Khafila dresses and speaks, she looks like her mother. When she stands there saying, "My mother was only 44 when she died," she looks a lot like her. And Kudirat was very religious: all the kids talked about how she went to the mosque every day, how Islam was tremendously important to her. So Olalekan's connection to Islam is inspired by his mother. That's his way of incorporating her. Each of them has chosen an aspect of her to make central within their own identities.